I packed up my car with one suitcase and two sons. We were heading to my home state to visit family and to celebrate my cousin, soon to be married.
It was a short trip, with not much time for driving down old roads or taking trips down memory lane. But I’ve been missing home, been struggling to make sense of the story that once made space for me — the hometown, the high school that holds my history, the church I came to Christ in, and the big city that’s branded me with a birthmark that is hard to lose and let go of.
There weren’t enough hours in the day for taking detours, but that didn’t stop me from making an impromptu stop while driving back south. With the kids in the car, and time not on my side, I made my way down that familiar Route 17 until I reached the place where the road bends sharp with a turn that takes you right to grandma’s house.
Grandma’s house. A house that once held me — a house that gave me a room to sleep in, somewhere to stay in my high school and college years. A house that gathered all us grandchildren on the holidays — every Christmas sprinkled with silver tinsel and every Easter served warm with venison and deviled eggs.
A house built on historic land, land that holds the legacy of my Native tribe as well as the testimony of a small town stitched through and through with lived-out stories of segregated schools and civil rights in New York. A house with a porch built by the tinkering hands of the grandfather I love and now miss so much. . .
I sat in my car, parked in front of that house, holding back tears and stuffing down the sorrow that was tearing at the seams. Because, how do we live holding the heartbreaking truth close to our chest? That the holidays are here, though the ones we love and miss are not. How will we survive the winter weeks ahead, packing up our cars with suitcases and sons as we head home for the holidays knowing all too well that our once-full tables are now empty, bare?
Because, truly, we want to be thankful at Thanksgiving but it is hard when we carry the grief of loved ones gone too soon. We want to celebrate Christmas but sometimes our hearts feel the ache of loss more than they do the awe of Advent.
And, sometimes we don’t always want or need gifts galore and cheerful songs to bring a smile and brighten spirits. Sometimes . . . we just need someone to acknowledge that the ache is real. Sometimes we just need to hear that while hope is true so, too, is the hurt.
Sometimes we need reminders that it’s okay to miss them, and it’s okay to cry. It’s okay to take the long way back simply because you want to drive by the house they once called home. Sometimes you just need to linger longer, staring at their pictures and praying the same prayer for the hundredth time. Sometimes you can’t put a tidy bow on the pain you feel. Sometimes you need permission to grieve, permission to say their names and remember their stories.
Sometimes you need someone to ask you about your grief, to ask you about the one you love and mourn and miss. No platitudes, no putting tidy bows where pain still pulls.
Sometimes we just need someone to make space for sorrow. To allow for the acknowledgment of all we grieve and grieve and grieve. So as the holidays come rushing in with the wind . . . if and when you feel the pressure to push through pain, to push it down, or to pretend it away, might you turn to these words that I wrote a few years ago. Words that still soothe my heart to this day:
If it was ten days ago, even if it was ten years ago. If it was Covid or cancer, a car accident or a circumstance by chance. Even if you hadn’t yet met them. Especially if you haven’t yet met them. Even when sorrow seeps into the season, and when heartache goes without easing. When you long for the loudness of their laughter, or the silent sureness of their presence — the way their hands held space for the holes and whole of you. For the empty chair at your table, the empty place where their plate would be, should be. There is this — a place within your heart that will never sit empty. For that empty chair at your table . . . let there be remembrance in your midst, let their name live on your lips.
As the holidays come rushing in, so do the memories that remind me of my grandfather, and my cousin, and my eccentric friend — all of them gone too soon. So this holiday season, I won’t fight the grief. I will hold hope in one hand and heartache in the other.
This holiday season I will choose to believe that our tears matter to God, the One who cradles all our little losses and greatest griefs. If you need the same, I hope you do the same. For the empty chair at your table, know that Christ dines with you and dwells within you — even and especially in this.
Friends — I’d love to hold space for the memory of your loved ones. Comment below and share the names of the ones you love and miss. I’d love to hear their story and honor their legacy with you.
Experience healing and hope through prose and poems that give space and grace for grief with Rachel’s new book, The Matter of Little Losses.